Who is Rhaenyra Targaryen? Warning spoilers ahead for House of the Dragon. The fantasy series House of the Dragon has taken us back to a time before Westeros was torn apart by the Lannisters and Starks, to when dragons ruled the Seven Kingdoms, and the Targaryen dynasty was at its most powerful.
With more than ten dragons at their command, House Targaryen’s grip on the Iron Throne seems absolute. Yet, within the walls of the Red Keep, family strife and personal ambition threatens to burn down the Targaryen family tree and destroy everything Aegon the Conqueror built. What’s the cause?
Well, King Viserys Targaryen has named his daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen his heir over his son Aegon, undermining years of patriarchal tradition. While they don’t know it yet, this decision will cause a civil war that will begin the House of the Dragon’s slow decline and end their royal line. But who is Rhaenyra Targaryen, what makes her one of the most important House of the Dragon characters, and why did Viserys want her to be his heir?
Rhaenyra Targaryen’s early life
Rhaenyra Targaryen was the only child of King Viserys and Aemma Arryn. Precocious and bold even as a child, she quickly became the apple of her father’s eye, and he took her as his cupbearer.
From this position, Rhaenyra watched her father meet with the lords and ladies of the Seven Kingdoms, learning the subtleties of politics and the difficulties of ruling. When Rhaenyra was just seven years old, she bonded with the dragon Syrax, becoming a dragonrider.
Rhaenyra was also close to her uncle Daemon Targaryen who would spoil his niece and tell her stories of his roguish adventures on the dragon Caraxes.
Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon
When we meet Rhaenyra in House of the Dragon, she’s a young woman living a carefree life in her father’s court. The princess spends her days flying on Syrax, reading in the Godswood, and playing with her best friend, Alicent Hightower. Her life dramatically changes, however, when her mother dies in childbirth.
Devastated by his loss, Viserys realises his all-consuming drive for a male heir is what killed his beloved Aemma when Rhaenyra was already the perfect successor. Viserys makes the decision to tell Rhaenyra The Song of Ice and Fire prophecy and names her the next Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Over the next few years, Rhaenyra diligently serves her father, helping him put down Daemon’s petulant rebellion, selecting Ser Criston Cole for the Kingsguard, and attending small council meetings. Yet when Viserys marries Alicent Hightower, a wedge starts to grow between the old friends.
While they remain cordial, it’s clear Rhaenyra disapproves of the marriage, and when Alicent starts to give Viserys sons, Aegon and Aemond, the divide only grows. Many in the court, primarily the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, want Viserys to name his firstborn son Aegon heir over Rhaenyra, and she grows suspicious that her friend is seeking to disinherit her.
The final straw in the friendship comes after Daemon returns to court and takes Rhaenyra into a brothel in Flea Bottom. While Rhaenyra and Daemon don’t consummate their growing attraction, they come close, and one of Otto’s spies spots them. The Hand of the King immediately goes to Viserys with this news, who refuses to believe it and removes Otto from office after Rhaenyra demands it.
Alicent confronts Rhaenyra in the aftermath, but the princess is clear she didn’t sleep with Daemon that night, which is technically true, although she leaves out that she did have sex with Criston Cole. When an angry Viserys arranges Rhaenyra’s marriage to Laenor Velaryon, Alicent learns the truth and starts to despise the princess for having her father deposed.
Rhaenyra and Laenor are eventually married, to the fury of Ser Cristom, with Alicent boldly wearing Hightower green (giving the Greens their name) to their wedding feast, although neither is faithful to the other. Rhaenyra has three bastard children with Ser Harwin Strong Princes Jacaerys, Lucerys, and Joffrey. While Rhaenyra and Laenor keep up the pretence that the children are legitimate, their bastardy is an open secret at court.
Indeed Alicent and her children take great pleasure in teasing Rhaenyra and the boys over their ‘strong’ looks. A sort of cold war begins between the Queen and the Princess, with each trying to build a power base in King’s Landing. Alicent ultimately wins after Larys Strong has his father, Lyonel, and brother, Harwin, murdered.
Following this, Viserys reinstates Otto as Hand of the King, and Rhaenyra leaves King’s Landing with her family, moving to Dragonstone. The feuding family are later forced to reunite at Laena Velaryon’s funeral, during which Aemond Targaryen claims the dragon Vhagar. This insult leads to Lucerys cutting out Aemond’s eye, dividing the family further still.
It was during Laena’s funeral that Daemon and Rhaenyra consummated their weird, weird, love. The pair then hatched a plan to get rid of Laenor Valyrian once and for all, allowing them to finally marry each other.
The new couple spends another six years away from court, during which Viserys’ health deteriorates, and the Hightowers cement their grasp on power. When Vaemond Velaryon questions the legitimacy of Jacaerys, Lucerys, and Joffrey, it seems like Rhaenyra will have her reputation ruined. Still, Viserys manages to find the strength to save his daughter one last time.
The same evening Rhaenyra and Alicent’s families dine together, and it seems as though the two warring factions may finally make peace. Unfortuantely this is all undermined when Rhaenyra leaves the castle and Viserys dies. Otto moves to crown Aegon II king, and Alicent allows him to as long as they don’t kill Rhaenyra.
Rhaenyra Targaryen in The Dance of the Dragons
We’re leaving the comfort of the TV series now and into the hinterland of the books, so the following may not come to pass in House of the Dragon season 2 exactly as we write. When Rhaenyra found out what had happened, she was apoplectic with rage at those who’d stolen her throne. She had herself crowned using her father’s crown and declared war on the Hightowers and the Greens.
Rhaenyra and Daemon immediately sought the loyalty of the great houses sending diplomats to all Seven Kingdoms. Lucerys was sent to Storm’s End to appeal to the House Baratheon, but Aemond was also there, and the two fought. Against the might of Vhagar, Lucerys and his smaller dragon Arrax were no match, and Rhaenyra’s second son was killed.
Around half the great houses, including the Starks and the Arryns, declared for Rhaenyra, and war broke out primarily in the Riverlands. The campaign was a brutal one, and Rhaenyra frequently took to the front on the back of Syrax.
After a year and a half of fighting, Rhaenyra managed to capture the capital, King’s Landing and finally take the throne. The common folk initially celebrated her return, but the tide quickly turned as Rhaenyra became more and more paranoid in the hunt for her half-brothers. Even worse, she had to levy great taxes against the people in order to replenish the treasury’s drained coffers.
All of this led to Rhaenyra being massively unpopular, and when she was accused of killing Helaena Targaryen, an uprising broke out. The commoners stormed the Dragon Pit and killed several of the Targaryen dragons. Rhaenyra was forced to flee for her life.
Desperate, she sold her father’s crown for a ship for passage on a ship sailing to Bravos, but she was betrayed and instead taken to Dragonstone, where Aegon II ruled. He had Rhaenyra fed to his dragon Sunfyre and declared that Rhaenyra never be referred to as a queen and that she had always only been a princess.
If you love House of the Dragon, check out our guide to the best Game of Thrones characters. We’ve also got an article looking at what’s next for George RR Martin’s fantasy world and Game of Thrones season 9.
Our sister site Wargamer also has a guide to the best Game of Thrones board games if you want to play this deadly political game for yourself.